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A reread of The Robe has reminded me just how much I love this novel. If you backed me into a corner and demanded I name just one favorite book, I would have to say this one.
The premise is an intriguing one. The Robe is the story of Marcellus, a Roman soldier who crucifies Jesus and wins His robe in a game of dice. He sets about discovering more about Jesus and Christianity.
The viewpoint of the “antagonist” generally perks a lot of interest, and indeed, it is interesting to see what some of Jesus’ executioners and “enemies” were thinking.
Note: Spoilers ahead
The main plot line is Marcellus’ gradual conversion from skeptical patrician to courageous believer. And the stories main plot points are as follows:
– Marcellus crucifies Jesus
– Marcellus touches the robe and is healed; he begins to believe there might be something more to Jesus
– Marcellus begins his travels with Barsabbas Justus
– Marcellus announces his belief in Lydia’s story
– Marcellus believes in Jesus’ divinity after seeing Stephen die
– Marcellus confesses his crime to Peter
– Marcellus makes a great sacrifice in giving up his marriage to Diana
– Marcellus converts the people of Arpino, accomplishing part of his mission as a Christian witness
– Marcellus goes to Rome as is his vocation
– Marcellus gives up his life
One key point about his conversion is “gradual”. It takes a while for Marcellus to finally believe in Jesus and this is realistic. His conversion is so gradual that it feels natural when he eventually becomes a believer. Things cannot happen all at once and they don’t.
The description really stood out to me. The book is chock full of detailed descriptions of every place. The details make the story feel real, but they are not boring. I think that’s because they are interwoven with personal reflections and tidbits on the culture at the time. Description is something I struggle with. I don’t enjoy writing it and many times, the surroundings are not even clear in my head. But it’s very important so that the reader is grounded in the story – plus, it’s a great place to add tiny info dumps.
“Wedged tight against his arm, and grinning up into his face, was another Greek, older but smaller than himself; a slave, easily recognizable as such by the slit in his earlobe.”
“Everything in this immense peristyle dwarfed her; the tall marble columns that supported the vaulted roofs, the stately statues standing in their silent dignity on the close clipped grass, the high silver spray of the fountain. No matter how old she became, she would be ever a child here.”
Description is SO important.
Every scene interested me, which is surprising, as I do get bored in many books. What is it about this book that engages me? I’m thinking the humor is a big part. Most of the characters have a good sense of humor – Marcellus in particular. Just check out some of these snippets:
“‘You heard that message?’ he queried, abruptly.
‘Not if it was private, sir,’ Demetrius countered.”
“Demetrius held out his gift, ‘It was a long day, and I had no employment. I have been strolling about. Would you like some figs?’
Benjamin motioned to have the basket out down on the table beside him … ‘Did you say to yourself, “I must take that cross old Jew some of these nice figs” – or did you say “I want to ask Benjamin some questions, and I’ll take the figs along so he’ll think I just dropped in to be friendly”?’
‘They’re quite good figs, sir,’ said Demetrius.”
I just love the dialogue … The narration voice itself is nicely ironic.
Of course, the story has many problems. But I realize that even stories with significant problems can be amazing. There are many unnecessarily elaborate dialogue tags. However, I still skipped over them and hardly batted an eye. There is telling of emotions. But still, I was invested in the characters. The romance was rather … shaky. There is head hopping. Perhaps it is third person omniscient? But I doubt it. Douglas head hops, plain and simple. There are also several uses of “you”, but it works because of the dreamy, anecdotal way the story is told. And still, it’s my favorite book. And I don’t think I’d have noticed all this if not for all the writing craft I’ve been studying.
I love the diverse cast of characters. There’s good natured Marcellus, his Greek slave Demetrius, quiet, loyal, and ironic, and his thoroughly Roman family. There are biblical characters – it was fun to see how they were depicted. That’s another thing I love about this novel; it makes bible stories come alive. There’s Peter, the Big Fisherman, gruff and humorous Justus, Stephen the martyr, Pontius Pilate, and more. And then, of course, there is Jesus. However, He only makes one direct appearance and even then, He does not speak. This is, as Andrew M. Greeley says in his introduction to the story, a smart move on Douglas’ part. It preserves the greatness and elusiveness of Jesus that any author would have struggled to capture by showing Jesus only through other people’s anecdotes.
There is a wide cast of female characters, as well as males. True, there are fewer main female characters. However, Rome was dominated by males, the twelve apostles were males, and the main character is male, so it’s only natural that they figure more prominently in the story. There are Lucia and Diana, Roman girls. There’s Theodosia, a spunky Greek and Miriam, a crippled Jewess, singer, and Christian. And there are minor characters, all of whom do have lines: the empress Julia, Celia, Marcellus’ mother, Cornelia Gallio, Diana’s mother Paula, Tertia, the Macedonian twins, Naomi, Deborah, Rebekah, Ino, Phoebe, and Rhoda.
Then there are the royalty – Tiberias, Gaius, and Caligula. I’m curious to know whether they really are as insane as the story depicts. Because if they are, how in the world did they keep the throne so long? Sure, Caligula was assassinated, but he lasted a couple years. Wouldn’t someone – anyone – assassinate him? How could the people endure such a horrid ruler?
I’ll take a minute to discuss the romance. I can’t say I loved it all that much. At the beginning of the story, Marcellus looks on Diana as a child. He even calls her a “romping infant” and not really in jest. Then when Lucia mentions Diana’s feelings for him, he suddenly looks on her with new eyes and falls in love.
I’m no authority on the subject, but do such things really happen?
Suffice to say, it did happen. In Diana’s case, I would say she really did “fall in love”. She didn’t know Marcellus very well but she must have known something from her observations and Lucia’s conversation. As for Marcellus, it seems his was mostly physical attraction, coupled with the fact that she loved him.
Why, he hardly knows her and hardly spends time with her! I think such was common in those days, but still, it’s a shaky foundation for a relationship. But their relationship does hold up – at least, for the course of their short lives. Their love does carry them through and it is beautiful the way their relationship blossoms. I can’t say I really ship them. But their romance turned out well in the end.
Whenever I read this story, I’m struck by the fact that life seldom turns out as we humans plan. I should know from experience! In Marcellus’ case, Diana and his family are ecstatic to have Marcellus return home but it turns out he is mentally ill. When he recovers, his family’s happiness and his future life with Diana is spoiled because he himself has changed greatly from his encounter with Jesus. But in the end, their life turns out beautifully. Albeit bittersweet, there is a certain beauty in Marcellus and Diana’s strengthened relationship.
You know how you often catch things during rereads that you didn’t catch the first time? Well, I realized The Robe has a bit of foreshadowing. See this: “Demetrius, sauntering today along through a narrow ravine, laughed as he recalled that extraordinary question and it’s absurd answer.”
So, Demetrius did survive the end of the story! Marcellus’ initiation as Commander of Minoa is said to be recalled in the manner of a legend.
In conclusion, I really enjoyed rereading The Robe but what, my ever practical side asks, did you learn from it?
The story was good because of detailed descriptions paired with personal thoughts and tidbits of culture; an interesting and unique premise; lots of humor in both voice, dialogue, and action; interesting, sympathetic, and diverse characters with realistic character arcs; and an exciting and unpredictable plot. So, basically, the story scored on all the points that we’re told, as writers, to score.
And for the how? The description and humor explain themselves. I’ve discussed the premise. Marcellus’ character arc is a good example of a realistic character arc. The characters are great because of their humor, diverse personalities and backgrounds, and sympathetic qualities. But they have faults too. Certainly, they are not perfect. Marcellus, at the beginning, lives a life of luxury and tolerates – even approves of – the slavery and insanity going on around him. After he converts, he undergoes a big change, but he is still unmistakeably human, with his sometimes clumsy, sometimes laughably exaggerated, attempts to convert others.
As as for the plot, the old adage holds true. You cannot tell the reader everything or he/she will have no motivation to continue reading. But it is paramount that the reader is invested in the character and is not skimming the story.
I think another reason I love this story is the way it resounds with me. Freedom is one motif in the story and something very important to me. There are many interesting quotes, such as, “‘You could all do something about this unhappy world, if you would; but you won’t.'” and “‘The slave is indeed a predatory creature … He makes off with your best sandals when all you have stolen from him is his freedom.'”
I know from experience that this is the sort of story I like to read – I like to read something “deep”. I like to read of people’s souls – their inner desires, temptations, struggles, shackles, hopes, fears. I want to know that there’s something more, that we’re more than just animals and there’s beauty in our souls.